As the death toll from Brazil’s devastating floods tops 600, local media and experts are blaming state and municipal authorities for failing to invest adequately in disaster prevention and urban planning, and mismanaging and cutting state funds allocated for disaster prevention and preparation.
In one of Brazil’s worst natural disasters in decades, deadly mudslides triggered by torrential rains in the mountains north of the city of Rio de Janeiro have caused rivers to burst their banks, destroyed hundreds of homes and cut off affected communities.
The tourist town of Teresópolis, around 60 miles north of Rio, has been one of the worst hit areas where at least 130 residents have been killed by mud and debris.
For many Brazilians, the high death toll caused by the latest flooding is an all too familiar tale and one that can be largely prevented. The question affected communities are asking is - why does this keep on happening every year?
Brazil’s O Globo newspaper was quick to highlight the lack of investment on disaster prevention by state governors and local municipalities. The newspaper also said that the Brazilian government has failed to put in place effective early warning systems against natural disasters. (Links are in Portuguese)
Contas Abertas, a Brazilian non-governmental organisation that monitors government spending, also says the authorities are not investing enough in disaster prevention. In some cases, it says, local authorities are diverting funds allocated to disaster management for other purposes. The organisation also says the federal budget for disaster prevention and preparation was down 18 percent in 2010.
Local journalist Gabriel Castro, in a blog for media outlet Veja, says the Brazilian government only spent 39 percent of its budget allocated for disaster prevention in 2010.
Other media reports have focused on the failure of mayors and local municipal officials to control poor building and the illegal construction of homes in Brazil’s ever expanding slum areas, locally known as favelas.
Here over the decades, poor families have built makeshift houses, often without permission, in areas at risk of flooding and landslides. Often it is these homes, built precariously on the edges of steep hill-top slums, which are the first to be destroyed in heavy rains.
It is a pressing issue that President Dilma Rousseff, who took office on Jan 1, highlighted as she toured flood hit areas last week.
"In Brazil, it is the rule that people live in areas of risk. Not an exception," she told local media.
"When there aren't housing policies, where are people who earn no more than twice the minimum wage going to live?" she added.
State authorities estimate nearly 20,000 people live in areas vulnerable to flooding and landslides in the city of Rio de Janeiro alone. The floods have prompted calls for local authorities to step up their efforts to remove people from their homes and relocate them, however unpopular. But many people living in flood-prone areas say they have nowhere else to go.
The recent floods have also exposed the lack of affordable housing for low-income families in Brazil’s major cities. It is a problem, along with reducing poverty, which Rousseff has promised to address as she takes the helm of one of the world’s leading emerging economies and a nation that aspires to attain developed-nation status.
In the wake of the flooding, the government has earmarked nearly $500 million to provide humanitarian assistance, build new homes, and invest in infrastructure and flood prevention measures. It also recently announced a three-year $1 billion package for drainage and slope stabilisation to prevent future flooding in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
Basic flood-prevention measures such as unblocking drains, putting proper sewage systems in place, preventing soil erosion, and constructing houses away from river banks and areas at risk of landslides and flooding, can all help reduce the devastation caused by heavy rains and help save lives, experts say.
In neighoubouring Colombia, where recent flooding has claimed over 300 lives, similar questions about the lack of disaster prevention and the urgent need to relocate thousands of people living in high-risk areas, are also dominating the headlines.